Shakespeare’s Grand Tour (part 12)

12 – Pelagie & Barbary



We have now firmly placed Shakespeare among the world of buccaneering corsairs that constituted the Elizabethan navy, where men like Drake, Hawkins & Raleigh were the x-factor style idols of the day. We have settled him amidst the ships of the Levant Company, one of which, the Toby, arrived in the Ottoman capital of Constantinople with a bang, as recorded by Lorenzo Bernardo, the Venetian ambassador to Constantinople.

March 17th 1586 – Some days ago an English ship entered this port. She has a little cloth & tin. She made a great noise with her guns. In a few days she sold off her cargo & sailed away in ballast

16th century Alexandria
16th century Alexandria


A few weeks later, at Alexandria, Egypt’s ancient & bustling port, The Toby would have joined with the Susan & Bonaventure, upon which, I believe, were Shakespeare, Stanley (& perhaps Donne). In June 1586, these three ships combined with the remaining two Company ships at the Greek island of Zante. These were the flagship, the Merchant Royal under ‘acting Admiral’ Edward Wilkinson, & also the William and John, both of which vessels had been dealing in Tripoli. They had combined again for security reasons – the journey through the Straits of Gibralta past  a hostile Spain would have been too treacherous for one or two vessels traveling on their own.




Setting off the following month,  they safely bypassed Malta before being intercepted by a squadron of eleven Spanish and Maltese galleys under Don Pedro de Leyva. The engagement took place off the island of Pantelleria on the 13th July, a five-hour running battle which saw, like some prophetic glimmer of the forthcoming Armada, the devastation of the Spanish ships, with only two sailors dying on the English side. Of the battle, the Venetian ambassador to Rome, Giovanni Gritti, wrote;

Between Sicily & the island of Pantalara the galleys of Naples & of Sicily fell in with nine English galleys returning form Constantinople, full of merchandise, & although they attacked the English ships they failed to take them. The galleys have returned to Naples for reinforcement & will sail again to search for the English. They have sent news of these English to Genoa, so that they may  be on the look out for them in the waters of Corsica & Sardinia


The English had simply outmanouvered &, more importantly, outgunned the Spanish. That Shakespeare could have witnessed such a battle is remembered throughout this plays. AF Falconer writes, ‘Shakespeare distinguishes between various types of ordnance & gun, understands how they work & are managed, & is familiar with gunnery terms & words of command.’  Other examples include;

The nimble gunner / With linstock now the devilish cannon touches (Henry V)
Like an overcharged gun, recoil / And turn the force of them upon thyself. (2 Henry VI)

Thy wit, that ornament to shape and love, misshapen in the conduct of them both, like powder in a skilless soldier’s flask, is set afire by thine own ignorance, and thou dismemb’red with thine own defense. (Romeo & Juliet)
What’s this? a sleeve? ’tis like a demi-cannon: What, up and down, carved like an apple-tart? (Taming of the Shrew)

Fear we broadsides / No let the fiend give fire (2 Henry VI)




That Shakespeare was with them, & that he had seen Pantelleria, seems to have inspired the location of his last play, The Tempest. We are told how, Alonso, King of Naples, washes up on a mysterious island on the way to the King of Tunis. Also on the island is the witch Sycorax, banished there from Algiers.  In her 1880 article, Another Island, Another Story: A Source for Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Theodor Elze makes quite a case for Pantelleria, but my instinct says it could be an island of the Pelagie archipelago – Jospeh Hunter suggested Lampedusa, while I’m more inclined to believe it is the sister island, Linosa. Either way,  with the Pelagie Isles perched half-way between Tunisia & Sicily, the Tempest island must be one of them. Indeed, if we examine five lines of the Garland, being…


Within the Court of Barbary, 
 When two full years Sir William had been, 
 Into Russia he needs must go, 
 To visit the Emperor and his Queen,

One Doctor Dee he met with there


…we gain both the setting  (Barbary is North Africa which incorporated Tunis) & the subject of the Tempest, whose Prospero character is widely believed to have been based on the English alchemist & academic, John Dee. The Tempest is Shakespeare’s last known play, & one can imagine him looking back on this time of high peril & adventure, when searching for a suitable theme & setting.


After the battle of Pantelleria, the Levant Company fleet headed for the safety of Algeria, to stock up on supplies & make any repairs. This movement neatly fits into the itinerary of William Stanley, who after Egypt visited, ‘the King of Morocco and his nobles all / Then went to the King of Barbary.’  In the previous year, the ‘Barbary Company’ had been established by Queen Elizabeth in order to lessen the responsibilities of the Levant Company. Chief investors were the Earls of Leicester & Warwick ‘& forty others’ among whom may have been the Earl of Derby. With such a pantheon of noble investors, including the queen, the presence of William Stanley in the exact ports these new merchant companies had settled, really does suggest that the young nobleman was conducting a ‘tour of interests’ on behalf of his father & his friends. Perhaps the details on contracts needed to be fine-tuned, or accounts checked for discrepancies, it seems that Stanley may have been some kind of ‘area manager’ for the Mediterranean.

 Despite suffering hardly any losses or damage, the battle would still have shredded the nerves, & I believe it is at this point in time that Stanley would have ordered his young charge, John Donne, to make his way home via the safety of the armed merchantmen. With the help of a thick sea-mist, this fleet fleet avoided the Spanish at Gibraltar, & were soon unloading their wares at the London docks. If Donne went with them, this allows him enough time to return to England & appear once more in the Earl of Derby’s service on the 13th May 1587, where the Derby Household Books include a ‘Mr Jhon Downes’ alongside six waiters who also appeared on the 1585 retinue list, with a certain ‘Mr John Donnes.’ 

As for Shakespeare & Stanley, it was time to meet John Dee… 






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